Priory Court Hotel, Pevensey, East Sussex

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Clifford Mould discovers another of his little gems!

I was trying to find a nice place near Eastbourne to have a family reunion for ten people, where some of us could stay overnight, and without totally breaking the bank. There's an excellent restaurant in the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne called the Mirabelle, and if our numbers had been smaller we might well have gone there. Locals recommended the Priory Court Hotel in the historic village of Pevensey, so I went down for a preliminary reconaissance the week before the party.

After only a few minutes talking to the co-owner and manager Lisa Morrow about menus, I immediately recognised another keen foodie. Without further ado, I booked us all in for dinner plus three rooms for those of us staying afterwards.

The Hotel is set in two acres of gardens that are probably very lovely in the summer; we arrived in pouring rain in the dark! The house dates from the 15th century and incorporates building materials from the Roman Castle opposite. The bar is warm and cheerful and the bar menu is substantial and consists of proper traditional English fare cooked on the premises by folk who know what they're doing.

The decor is gloriously "retro", with a riot of differently patterned carpets, wall lights with little red shades, wheel backed chairs and what estate agents archly describe as a "wealth of exposed beams and other period features". The a la carte menu in the restaurant offers some serious choices. One has to cater for the passing trade so there was a kind of prawn cocktail 4.25, though it was not called anything so vulgar. And there was melon, but it came as a duo of seasonal melons 3.75, arranged on a mint, sweet ginger and natural yoghurt sauce, with a garnish of quinnels of apricot sorbet. It looked very well put together, and my aunt sitting opposite really enjoyed it.

The homemade soup looked and tasted thick and homemade and another starter of Smokey leeks, bacon and pistaccio nuts was baked in filo pastry to make a very successful dish, 3.75. I had fresh mussels 4.25, steamed in vermouth with a mirepoix of finely diced vegetables enriched with cream. The mussels were proper wild ones - well worth putting up with a pinch of grit for their strong, fresh flavour. The sauce was yummy. Breast of pigeon stuffed with apricots soaked in brandy was served on a good salad with lovely balsamic dressing, but the meat was rather tough and not pink in the middle. That's the trouble with game, you win some you lose some.

There's a good selection of fish, one hoped it was local but forgot to ask. Scollops tossed in oyster mushrooms with lardons of bacon and pistaccios came in a filo shell with tangy sherry sauce, 8.95. This was raved about by several of our number. A duo of Shetland salmon and monk fish had been baked en papilotte with vanilla, ginger and champagne, 9.75. It was well presented on a bed of wild rice. Maybe the dill sauce was overplaying it a bit, but my cousin commented on the high standard of the cooking.

Those who like offal could have had lambs' kidneys in a Dijon and bacon sauce for 8.25. My son, well down the other end of the table had honey roasted rack of lamb with a rosemary and red wine reduction 13.75. He semaphored enthusiastically to me, so I took it to mean another satisfied customer. Noisettes of venison pan fried with juniper berries were served on a leek and potato rosti with a dark elderberry wine sauce.

I decided to try a traditional item from the bar menu: English steak and kidney pudding. Anyone wanting to know what this should be like should go straight along to the Priory Court. The gravy was dark and rich, the meat was tender and tasty, the kidney not too overpowering. But the pudding, oh the pudding. Crusty on the outside, blending into the filling so that the one becomes the other and the other becomes the one. Perfection for only six quid! And there are no hidden extras like vegetables or cover charges.

By this time, the family side of things had begun to take over, and I can't remember much about the puddings except that I rather wished I hadn't eaten one. Not because they weren't jolly good. The portions at the Priory Court are magesterial, particularly from the bar menu. There's absolutely no danger of fading away!

We drank quite a lot of very gluggable house wine, and the bill for the whole party came to just over two hundred pounds including service and the pre-dinner bar tab!

Staying in the Hotel

There are about eight bedrooms, most of which have en suite baths. The decor is a bit variable but the beds were comfortable and our bathroom was well up to scratch. We payed a very reasonable 49.00 for the double room. A traditional cooked breakfast of gargantuan proportions is included - I defy you to want lunch after this! One of the single ladies paid 25 pounds for her room and breakfast. There are weekend bargain breaks with discounts up to 50% off the price of your room on Sunday night if you checked in on the Friday before.

Pevensey itself has much of historical interest, and there are many historic houses and other attractions in the Sussex area.

Priory Court Hotel, Pevensey, East Sussex BN24 5LG
Tel: Eastbourne (01323) 763150 Fax: 769030
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